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Homeowners stretched perilously

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"I am telling all the Spanish-speaking people, don't do it," says Carmen of homeownership. "If I lose my house, I will get out of here. It's not worth it."

Other Bostonians are under similar pressures. Fully 27.1 percent of the city's homeowners with a mortgage spent at least half their gross income on housing in 2004, according to the latest census figures available. Those costs, which include utilities and insurance as well as mortgage payments, were more than double the national rate of 11.7 percent and topped New York (25.9 percent), Los Angeles (26.5), San Francisco (20.4), and Chicago (20.3). Of the 25 biggest cities, only Miami had a higher rate (35.8 percent).

In Boston, a shift in market forces is now putting many of these vulnerable homeowners into a double bind. Rising interest rates are pushing up the costs for those who have adjustable mortgages. At the same time, these homeowners are finding it harder to sell.

Massachusetts home prices fall

The number of homes sold in Massachusetts dropped a whopping 21 percent in January compared with a year ago, the largest year-to-year decrease in monthly home sales in a decade. As a result, home values have begun to soften. Statewide, they actually fell slightly in January compared with a year ago.

Such pressures are forcing a rising number of homeowners to erase their debts by forfeiting their homes. Foreclosure filings in the county that includes Boston nearly doubled in January from a year ago, ForeclosuresMass. says.

Homeowners "call us and are heartbroken," says Robert Pulster, executive director of the Ecumenical Social Action Committee, which works with Boston residents on the brink of losing their homes. "They thought it was their dream."

More trouble lies ahead, some experts warn.

"I would suspect that as home prices soften, you are probably going to see a ramp-up in defaults, delinquencies, and foreclosures," says Nicolas Retsinas of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. "It is not that they were not stretched before, but if you couldn't make the mortgage payments, you would sell. If the market is softer, it is not as easy to do this."

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